This Day in History – November 27th, 1835

William Bonill, aged 68, had lived for thirteen months in a rented room at a house near the Blackfriars Road, Southwark, London. His landlord later stated to the police that Bonill had frequent male visitors, who generally came in pairs, and that his suspicions became aroused on the afternoon of August 29th 1835, when Pratt and Smith came to visit Bonill.

The landlord climbed to an outside vantage point in the loft of a nearby stable building, where he could see through the window of Bonill’s room, before coming down to look into the room through the keyhole. Through the keyhole, both the landlord and his wife saw sexual intimacy between Pratt and Smith so the landlord broke open the door to confront them. Bonill was absent, but returned a few minutes later with a jug of ale. The landlord went to fetch a policeman and all three men were arrested.

Pratt, Smith and Bonill were tried on September 26th, 1835 at the Central Criminal Court, before Baron Gurney, a judge who had the reputation of being independent and acute, but also harsh. Pratt and Smith were convicted under section 15 of the Offences against the Person Act 1828, which had replaced the 1533 Buggery Act, and were sentenced to death. William Bonill was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to 14 years of Penal transportation. James Pratt was a groom, who lived with his wife and children at Deptford, London. A number of witnesses came forward to testify to his good character. John Smith was from Southwark Christchurch and was described in court proceedings and newspaper reports as an unmarried laborer although other sources state he was married and worked as a servant. At the trial, no character witnesses came forward to testify on his behalf.

Hangin_outside_Newgate_Prison

Pratt and Smith were hanged in front of Newgate Prison on the morning of November 27th, 1835. The crowd of spectators was described in a newspaper report as larger than usual; this was possibly because the hanging was the first to have taken place at Newgate in nearly two years. The event was sufficiently notable for a printed broadside to be published and sold.

William Bonill was one of 290 prisoners transported to Australia on the ship Asia, which departed England on November 5th, 1835 and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) on July 5th, 1836. Bonill died at the New Norfolk Hospital in Van Diemen’s Land on April 29th, 1841.

Pratt and Smith were the last two people to ever be executed for sodomy in England, but it was not until 1967 that laws against consensual homosexual acts were no longer illegal in England and Wales. Scotland changed their same sex laws in 1980, and Northern Ireland in 1982.

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